Transforming the lowly employee handbook: Design for communication not litigation

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Give me about three minutes with your employee handbook and I can tell you how it was created.  The most popular way: cut and paste.  Human Resource managers retrieve handbooks from their former employers, borrow a few examples from colleagues and extract the sections that apply to their firm.  The results:  generic choppy language, uneven flow from section to section and missing pieces that didn’t happen to appear in any of the examples they selected.  The second most popular way: send it to the local employment law firm.  The results:  tight, rigid language with lots of “and may result in your termination of employment” and “the employer reserves the right to” statements.  See post on PROXUS HR website.

Limited utility

A common feature of these documents is that they fail to convey the uniqueness of the organization or to delineate the hopes of the leaders and the expectations for the employees.  Secondly, they tend to be static, content-laden pamphlets that are only updated when required changes reach some critical mass.  As a result, employees can reach the conclusion that this information is not important enough to be artfully crafted and to our surprise – they will ignore it.  Or worse, perceive that the workplace is a restrictive rule-based environment and begin building their workplace defenses or even their exit strategy.  And managers may inappropriately interpret the legalistic tone of a handbook as a gauge for how they should apply policies and employee discipline.  Thus the purposes of the handbook can become unnecessarily limited to two functions.  One is the indoctrination of new employees during orientation and the second is to provide corporate justification and legal defense for taking adverse employment actions.

Another option

There is a third way.  In this era when employee engagement is critical to operational success and company branding is of paramount marketplace importance, the employee handbook can be transformed into a powerful communication vehicle.  It can be used as a tool for delivering important information about culture and practices not only to new employees, but also to current employees and the management team in addition to being a conduit of policy and practice descriptions.

The road to transforming the lowly handbook begins where any quality communication effort starts, which is determining the purposes of the booklet, identifying the target audiences and understanding how it will be used by people.

Purposes and Uses

  • Describe key employment policies, practices and programs
  • Provide support and justification for organizational actions
  • Communicate required legal notices
  • Tell the history of the organization including significant leaders and major accomplishments
  • Portray the mission, vision and core values and promote the desired culture
  • Organizational branding
  • Company overview for new employees
  • Quick policy reference for managers and staff
  • Legal document for attorneys and courts


  • New employees
  • Current employees
  • Former employees
  • Management team
  • Senior leadership
  • Risk Management
  • Corporate defense attorneys
  • Adversary counsel
  • Insurance companies
  • Human Resources, Finance and other corporate departments

Drafting Tips

There are several concepts to bear in mind when writing your handbook.  Overall, it should inspire, encourage and communicate.  The handbook should look and read as crisply as the best marketing pieces.  It should be easily understood by the majority of employees and consider having it translated if there are significant numbers of people for whom English is a second language.  The language describing the history, the mission and the values of the organization speak to the core of the culture and can provide perspective and aspirations.  Make positive statements about how employees are expected to perform and behave, rather than create endless lists of things they shouldn’t do.  Limit the disclaimers and threats of firing to the minimum required.  Corporate counsel is sincere in its desire to protect the company, but their efforts to prevail in a potential legal battle should not dominate the handbook’s other purposes.  Marketing should see it as complementary to their branding efforts.  Remember that managers will refer to it as a quick policy guide regardless of how many times you tell them to use the Policies and Procedures Manual.  And staff new and tenured, truly want to understand how the organization functions, what is expected of them as a member of the team and what they can reasonably expect from the company in terms of benefits and fair treatment.

It is not a simple task to integrate risk mitigation, the transmission of cultural values and a clear description of policies and practice.  However, the effort and care involved in producing the document will be apparent to all who read it.  It will radiate the importance that the company attributes to the information and demonstrate the degree to which the firm cares about the employees who read it, the managers who access it and the environment in which they work.

How was your employee handbook designed?  Does it communicate the organizational culture that you have and desire?

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